SANTA CLARA — When in doubt, go left.
That’s been the 49ers’ unofficial offensive motto since Kyle Shanahan took over as the team’s head coach in 2017.
It’s never been so true as this season.
The 49ers are one of two teams in the NFL that runs more than it passes the ball, and they’re running to left end of the line more than any other team in the NFL this season, according to NFEPO.com.
And why wouldn’t you? That’s where Trent Williams — the NFL’s best left tackle — works.
“He might be the best player I’ve ever seen,” Christian McCaffrey — himself a front-runner for NFL Offensive Player of the Year — said of Williams this week. “There’s nothing he can’t do. He plays beyond the X’s and O’s. He does things other people can’t do, and he’s been doing it for a really long time. “
“When he’s out there, he gives everyone a little extra confidence.”
“Go left” first became the Niners’ motto because Joe Staley was the team’s left tackle. Staley made the NFL’s All-Decade team and should, one day, have his bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But when Staley started battling injuries in 2019, leading to his retirement after that campaign, the 49ers needed a replacement.
Four seasons later, it’s inarguable that the 49ers’ upgraded at the all-important position.
“He was built in a laboratory,” said Buccaneers left tackle Tristan Wirfs — one of the best left tackles in the game — said of Williams, per Fox Sports.
It shouldn’t be surprising that when Williams is healthy and plays every meaningful snap, the 49ers are 18-1 over the last three seasons and 7-0 this campaign.
Yes, the Niners’ roster is loaded. McCaffrey, George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk, and the tone-setting play of Deebo Samuel have a lot to do with those wins. The defense deserves plenty of credit, too.
But Williams has proven himself to be the linchpin of the team. His excellence provides a fail-safe in a parity-driven league where offensive success can be fleeting.
And as the Niners’ best player, his presence looms large off the field, too.
Williams is soft-spoken, at least with the media,
“I feel the same way about him, too,” Williams said of McCaffrey’s praise. “I guess we share that in common.”
But Williams is also a team captain and the kind of player everyone on the team looks up to — in most cases literally.
“Trent is the one who breaks us all down before we go out to the field. And when he’s not playing, he doesn’t do it,” Niners quarterback Brock Purdy said this week. “Just having that energy [on the field changes the team]. He’s a huge piece to this culture.”
The Niners have run left 139 times this season, per Pro Football Focus. They’ve averaged nearly five yards per carry — a yard more than runs to the right (where Williams sometimes ends up on elaborate gap runs).
The Niners ‘ failsafe was hardly safe without him in the lineup due to an ankle injury. The Niners lost both games with Williams out before the bye week.
But after that two-game absence, Williams returned to the left end of the Niners’ line last week against Jacksonville. The Niners’ blowout win featured two runs to the left with Williams pulling away from the line and leading the rusher into the open field.
Twice, Jaguars safety Darious Williams — 5-foot-9 — found himself in a nightmare, lined up with the 6-foot-5, 320-pound left tackle, who, at his best, can run 19 miles per hour.
And twice, the Jaguars’ safety decided the best course of action was to run away from No. 71.
Deebo Samuel ran for a game-sealing 23-yard touchdown the second time it happened. He went untouched on the play.
“I can’t say I blame him,” Niners general manager John Lynch — a Hall of Fame safety — said of the Jaguars’ safety on KNBR this week.
The Niners’ Super Bowl hopes are back after that win over the Jags.
And so long as the “best player I’ve ever seen” is in the lineup for the Niners, that will remain the case.